Insights and Analysis

Funding the Frontline: Rapid Response to the Gendered Impacts of Covid-19 in Asia

April 29, 2020

By Eileen Pennington, Elizabeth Romanoff Silva, Jane Sloane, Paula Uniacke, Priya Dhanani

The gendered impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to play out in countries and communities across Asia, with acute effects on women and girls. Domestic violence and child abuse have risen dramatically as shelter-at-home orders exacerbate unequal power relations, heighten economic and mental-health pressures, and restrict movement. Services for survivors of violence are disrupted or at maximum capacity.

Women workers and entrepreneurs have suffered a disproportionate loss of economic security, especially migrants and those in the informal and gig economies; women healthcare and community workers comprise more than 70 percent of the frontline pandemic workforce, putting them at particular risk; and the growing burden of unpaid care work, including childcare, homeschooling, and eldercare, falls predominantly on women. The gendered impacts of the pandemic are multifaceted and affect people of all genders: more women are infected by Covid-19, while men are more likely to die, which in turn leaves more women-headed households to manage the crisis with few resources. 

Women have suffered a disproportionate loss of economic security, women comprise more than 70 percent of the frontline pandemic workforce, and the growing burden of unpaid care work falls predominantly on women.

Even as women have suffered uniquely from Covid-19, they are also uniquely positioned by their socially prescribed care roles to identify key needs and potential solutions to the pandemic and its shocks. It is therefore crucial to include women in devising policies and programs to address the pandemic as well as their own specific needs. So far, this has not happened.

Through our country offices across Asia, we’ve been hearing from our longtime partners and beneficiaries about the urgent needs on the ground, and we are mobilizing to respond. Thanks to the flexibility of our public-sector donors, our existing projects have been able to pivot to confront the emergency in the communities where we work. In Sri Lanka, under a Women’s Voice and Leadership project funded by Global Affairs Canada, we are supporting a shelter for survivors of domestic violence to meet the growing need. In addition, as part of an EU-supported Gender & Justice project, we are providing information on helplines and resources for domestic-violence victims, along with food rations and other humanitarian assistance.

Thanks to the flexibility of our donors, our existing projects have been able to pivot to confront the emergency in the communities where we work.

We have also established the Covid-19 Lotus Rapid Response Fund to address the immediate predicament of women and girls by providing additional resources where they’re most needed. This includes supporting vital services, launching new interventions, and working with corporate and not-for-profit partners to adapt to these critical needs.

A vital resource managed by our team has been the Lotus Circle Fund, an impact fund supported by individual and corporate donors committed to The Asia Foundation’s work for women’s empowerment and gender equality in Asia. Since launching three weeks ago, The Asia Foundation’s Covid-19 Lotus Rapid Response Fund has been deployed to respond directly to the needs of women and girls. Here are some examples:

  • Construction of new handwashing stations in Timor-Leste at the entrances to organizations and agencies that support women, children, and people with disabilities. This includes areas where The Asia Foundation and its local partners are managing the long-term, DFAT-funded Nabilan program to combat the high levels of violence against women in that country. These stations were under construction within 24 hours after funds were disbursed, and they are already meeting an urgent need.
  • Support for a domestic violence hotline in Indonesia, including counseling, emergency supplies, and referrals for economic help for victims of gender-based violence. Calls to the hotline have increased sevenfold since the pandemic began.
  • Remote learning support for young women scholars studying STEM in Laos and Cambodia, including computers, internet access, food and healthcare supplies, and online mentoring to help them stay connected and engaged with their course work and skills training.
  • Emergency support for women and vulnerable groups. In Cambodia, we’re supplying female waste collectors with masks, gloves, hand soap, first-aid kits, food supplies, and educational materials for their children so that they can sustain their families during the pandemic. In Indonesia, we’re helping women with disabilities and other vulnerabilities to start vegetable gardens, so they’ll have fresh food during the pandemic. In Pakistan, we supported the distribution of hygiene kits in Rawalpindi.
  • Support for women entrepreneurs to adapt their businesses. In Malaysia, we’ve launched the Entrepreneur Scale-Up Program, with coaching for selected women micro-entrepreneurs, visibility and branding guidance, and mentorships to unlock online opportunities for growth. In Mongolia, we are working through the Women’s Business Center to provide online coaching, technical support, and access to funding to adapt to the challenging business environment during the pandemic.

A handwashing station placed outside ALfeLa, an Asia Foundation partner in Dili, Timor-Leste, that provides legal advice and information for women and advocates for gender-just legal reform (Photo: ALfeLa staff)

More projects are in the pipeline, including raising awareness of domestic violence and victim services in Myanmar and Pakistan, and helping migrant women workers returning to Nepal build their resilience and find new income opportunities during the pandemic.

These funds will also sustain the critical work of key women’s organizations and movements as they weather the global pandemic. As we work to make women safe, strong, and heard during this time of rapid change and urgent need, we must not lose ground on longer-term policy initiatives to advance women’s rights and gender equality.

Jane Sloane, Elizabeth Silva, Eileen Pennington, Priya Dhanani, Paula Uniacke are The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality team. The team can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

The Latest Across Asia

2024 Lotus Leadership Awards

The Lotus Leadership Awards recognize contributions towards gender equality in Asia and the Pacific